Jessica was born in 1971. She came out as a lesbian in 1990. A decade later she became involved in a landmark program at Fenway Community Health Center in Boston, MA. She started injecting Testosterone. She changed her name. And I was born. In this series of photo-based self portraits and written narratives, I revisit some of the Faces I’ve Seen along the way.
To successfully conceal a stigmatized identity, I have to be hypervigilant. Forced to rely on intuition and cultural norms about age, class, gender, and race, my ability to observe, interpret, and meet the perceptions and expectations of others has allowed me to hide amongst various groups to which I don’t belong.
Pointing the camera at myself as an aging transgender man, I reveal an invisible life of silence and trauma under the forces of America’s long-lasting systemic oppression against queer people.
He peaked in high school when he was quarterback of the football team and thrower of the raddest house parties in town. The girls couldn’t get enough of him, but it felt like he only had eyes for me. Punching my books out of my hands, shoving me in my locker, following me home, grabbing himself while telling me love stories about how he’d make a real woman outta me with his giant cock, and all the pet names he would attempt to summon my attention with… dyke, freak, fat pig, queer, shemale, carpet muncher, lesbi-man. He always warned me that no matter how much I tried, I’d never be the man he is. Well Guido, you got something right.
Born on the same day seven years apart, that’s about all I have in common with my older sister. But I can still feel the warmth of the family bigotry that flows through her ice cold veins. Though her accomplishments in this regard are far too numerous to list, she’s likely most proud of how she actively participated in getting me evicted from my home during the most dangerous and consequential time in my life. Empowered by that victory, she proceeded to spearhead the efforts that ultimately resulted in my being disowned and denied my entire inheritance. Tossing your transgender brother to the curb is the family version of unconditional love. Yet still, I ended up being the way hotter sister.
His job as a crew leader for the Department of Public Works paid him handsomely to be out on the city streets. And though construction was his trade, greeting the innocent and uninterested passersby was the work responsibility in which he seemed to take the greatest pride. Always the rowdy cheerleader, he gave attention to beautiful women of all races and classes. But there were certain neighborhoods with pedestrians that made him extra vocal. Even his wife eventually caught on to the fact that it was always the tranny girls that really made his jackhammer hum.
From her penthouse view atop the who’s who list in the high society circle, she knew all the right people and how to pull their strings. A lover of travel, she spent several years after University expanding her mind in exotic experiences and cultures around the world. But she couldn’t escape her pedigree forever, returning home to take hold of the family business when Father fell ill. By most standards, she was polite enough to me. But that’s not how I would have described it. And when it came to the subject of her daughter dating “someone like me”, it would happen over her dead body, as she so eloquently put it, with a smile. Love you too, Gwenie!
When my mother dragged me into his office and introduced me as her daughter, Vice President Sullivan tried very hard to hide his cacophony of thoughts and emotions. But all these decades later, I finally hear what his silence conveyed. Marlene had been a patron of his bank since my family moved to town in the 70s. She made it clear that he was my only hope. People who look and act like me can’t get things like bank accounts and car loans, you see. Turns out the dividends on family bonds don’t always pay off for us either. But Sully should go long on a JC portfolio. Ring the bell… my price is about to go up.
Meet Father J
O Greatly Merciful God, Infinite Goodness, today all mankind calls out from the abyss of its misery to Your mercy – to Your compassion, O God; and it is with its mighty voice of misery that it cries out. Gracious God, do not reject the prayer of this earth’s exiles! O Lord, Goodness beyond our understanding, Who are acquainted with our misery through and through, and know that by our own power we cannot ascend to You, we implore You: anticipate us with Your grace and keep on increasing Your mercy in us, that we may faithfully do Your holy will all through our life and at death’s hour. Let the omnipotence of Your mercy shield us from the darts of our salvation’s enemies, that we may with confidence, as Your children, await Your final coming – that day known to You alone. And we expect to obtain everything promised us by Jesus in spite of all our wretchedness. For Jesus is our Hope: through His merciful Heart, as through an open gate, we pass through to heaven. (Diary, 1570)
Her home was luxuriously appointed, yet Louise felt most abundant when it was filled with young, lost souls. An impressive amount of square footage provided her husband and children enough space to share with others. And as reliable as the sun and the moon, throughout my junior high years and beyond, her door was always open to me. For those of us that needed a place to rest our heads, a good meal, some laughter, genuine acceptance, and real love, we knew where we truly belonged. It was at Louise’s house. It has taken me decades to fully grasp the impact of people like her. The neighborhood moms, flying under the radar while shielding the misfits and walking wounded under their wings. They are rare and misunderstood beauties, independent, strong-willed, and resolute in their quiet convictions. I now understand them to be the qualities I admire most. I miss you, L.
The AIDS crisis raged as I graduated high school. The first campaign of American genocide that I personally witnessed during my lifetime, it was a brutally dark time for gay men. I was a lost soul drawn to their fight to be visible. So there I was, waving my freak flag at the protests and parades. It was a revelation to feel safe enough to come out of hiding for a moment. And be myself, or so I thought. As it turns out, I was about to enter an awakening of consciousness about my own queer experience. You probably would have labeled me a butch lesbian. But I mostly passed as a boy named Jess. Something didn’t feel right to me in the lesbian community. I wasn’t straight. And terms like transgender were very new to me and rarely spoken. But gay boys like Keith thought I was cute. They were fringe and outrageous. They gave not one single fuck what others thought, and accepted me for whatever I was. So the gay clubs pumped up the jam and turned us loose on the dance floor because silence equals death, but we weren’t dying that night.
She thought straight boys were kinda boring and stupid. Don’t get me wrong, she wasn’t gonna be with someone like me – either before or after transition. But for a few songs or as long as you could keep up with her level of play, she made you feel like you just threw the game-winning pass. She said gay bars had better music and way stronger drinks than the dives and sports bars our college friends liked to frequent. I think it was also because there wasn’t any sexpectation at the end of the night. Gay boys were nonthreatening, and so was I. But don’t be fooled by her party girl exterior, she wasn’t a one-dimensional girl. Tiffany taught me the meaning of the word ally. She knew what her presence meant, and how her solidarity could serve the fight for equality. I hope she knew what she meant to me, and I wish we could dust the glitter off and do it all over again.